My parents were fabulous in every way except one: they forced me to grow up near Watford, an egregious dump a criminally long way from decent rowing waters.
Luckily, us kids used to spend a lot of our holiday time in the late 1950s and early 60s staying at our mother's parents home on bank of the Thames at Wallingford, south of Oxford. The sun shone all the time as I recall, we swam, we fished a bit, we ate ice cream sundaes at the Bridge Cafe and we generally had a fabulous time.
It was a lovely Queen Anne house that had been the home of the Victorian artist G.D. Leslie, a fanatical punter and author of the book Our River, the Thames [1881 and free]. The broad lawn stretched down to a jetty and pontoon where were parked an array of boats to make a young boy's heart glad. All of them were called Snarleyow after the gun horse in the Kipling poem ("Pull up, pull up for Snarleyow -- 'is head's between 'is 'eels!").
The family favourite was Snarleyow II, a classic Thames double skiff built of mahogany on an oak frame. The stern seat had a woven cane back and arms, very stylish, and the thwarts were softened with lambswool pads.
|Dad, sister Valery, Dad with brother Nick and a couple of cousins in Snarleyow II circa 1960.
|Mum alighting from Little Snarley just before the War.
|My grandfather Pops taking Snarleyow out for the first time in 1949.
|With Dad in bow in Snarleyow II c1960.
Dad usually stayed at home to work, but would join us at weekends and for a week or two in mid-summer. He was a notorious early bird, dragging us out of bed at six in the morning and onto the skiff to row a couple of miles downriver to a spot on the bank where there was a little sandy cove below a pasture where you could lay out a couple of blankets if you were careful to avoid the cow pats. We played as he lit a Primus stove, a terrifying object fired by petrol in a high pressure tank. He always did a fry-up with eggs and pork luncheon meat. To this day the smell of luncheon meat frying instantly takes me back to the sunlit Thames in the 1950s.
Later on I would go out in Little Snarley, officially Snarleyow III, a flat-bottomed boat bought by my grandmother for fishing. She was rather slow and didn't track very well but I suspect that might have been down largely to my lack of strength and technique. But for a ten-year old to get out on the river on one's own was bliss indeed.
Occasionally we would go down to the Beetle and Wedge in the 30ft Andrews slipper launch Snarleyow, a wonderful confection of contrasting woods with the characteristic sweeping stern. She burbled along beautifully powered only by a marinised Morris automotive engine. Once I was let behind the wheel, they had to prise it from my fingers to get me off it.
For a while I was a member of Wallingford Rowing Club where I learned to row sliding seat boats and would take a single scull out whenever I could cycle from Watford. But all this came to an end when my grandmother died and the house was sold, but I was hooked on boats.